Last January, The Dismemberment Plan announced that after 10 years, four well-received albums and countless tours that earned them a reputation for being one of the most consistently exciting live acts on the planet they were calling it quits.
Eight months later, they’re still around. As a matter of fact, they’re in Japan for two weeks, most of it as the opening act for local indie-rock heartthrobs Quruli, but despite the carping of Internet yentas who feel that the long goodbye has gone on too long, the group’s dismemberment has, in fact, proceeded exactly according to plan.
“It’s weird that people are saying that,” comments Travis Morrison, the Plan’s lead singer and guitarist. “We said there would be two tours and then Japan. Everything we said we were going to do in the time frame we were going to do it in we’ve been doing.”
Tonight, Aug. 30, in fact, will be the Plan’s next to last show forever, at Nest, a small club in Shibuya. Morrison is sitting in the office of his Japanese record company. He looks tired and seems eager to get the whole thing behind him, but nevertheless wants to do it right.
The Nest show was originally supposed to be their swan song, but several weeks earlier an outdoor gig in their home base of Washington, D.C., was spoiled by a squall, and so they’ll do one last concert there after they return from Japan.
“When bands break up there’s a certain amount of Kremlinology, people trying to figure out the significance of everything,” he says. ” ‘Why Japan last?’ There’s no rhyme or reason. Some people just like to be mystified. On the indie-rock circuit, when a band tours abroad everybody goes ‘ooooo,’ and when they go to Japan, it’s ‘OOOOOOOOO!’ People don’t know how lucky we are to have Quruli call us and say, ‘Hey, you want to come over and visit?’ “
This is the group’s third trip to these shores, and Quruli’s “patronage” has been essential to the Plan’s acceptance. “The last time we were here it was more of our tour, and that was by van. The three-onigiri diet. You can find cheapies — I’ve found great udon and unagi-don for less than five bucks. It can be done, but I can’t imagine doing it without having a label here.”
They’ve made new friends each time, but Morrison doesn’t analyze their appeal. “I remember when we came the first time, we were getting e-mails from Japanese kids saying, ‘I want to see you but your show is sold out,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, we’re hot stuff.’ And then we get here and it’s like an 1,800-capacity venue, and it dawned on me that we were on tour with a very popular band. It was as if Wilco had asked a group from Brazil to open for it. That’s why I say it’s their patronage that’s made the difference. They’re our hosts and I’m honored. Other bands always ask me how to get over to Japan, and I say, ‘Man, you’re asking me?’ “
The breakup is less mystifying. “We were starting to stray from the original energy of the band,” he says. “I think we had not processed the idea of being day-in-day-out professional musicians. Joe [Easley, keyboards and guitar] is now going back to school to study aerodynamic engineering, and Jason [Caddell, drums] has been getting into furniture-making. Eric [Axelson, bass] and I were the guys who originally wanted to play music as a kind of Platonic ideal, and he and I will continue. I’m doing solo stuff and he’s playing with guys in the Promise Ring.
“So I’ve enjoyed these last eight months more than the year previous to that, when I think there were some fundamental lifestyle issues that we were avoiding about where we all wanted to be.”
On the band’s Web site, Axelson explained that “there are some things we want to do that are precluded by being in a touring band.”
Morrison elaborates. “Being an aerospace engineer doesn’t preclude being in a band and going down to the local bar every so often and playing a show. But being in a band full-time precludes being an aerospace engineer.
“A lot of people get involved in music in order to avoid having to make adult choices, but there’s a lot of drudgery in being a touring musician. You roll the dice every day. Some musicians can’t stand getting anything less than, say, a 10, but I don’t mind getting a twobecause I know I’ll still roll 12s sometimes.”
Morrison admits that the solo artist route is better suited to his temperament. He’s more than halfway through the recording of his first record, which he’s doing with Chris Walla of the Seattle band Death Cab for Cutie. Sounding as if the Plan were already history, he says: “I don’t really miss the creative dynamic of a band. [laughs] I miss the social aspect. A lot of times with a band, it’s like, ‘I won’t try that because I bought this instrument, so I’m going to play it this way.’ That kind of assertion limits the amount of permutations available. Groups are dangerous in that consensus means all the wild ideas get thrown out. But to the end, the Plan were always inquisitive musically.”
Such inquisitiveness explains why the postpunk label usually attached to the band didn’t stick. The Plan’s musical attack has as much to do with hip-hop and jazz fusion as it does with the characteristic D.C. sound epitomized by bands like Fugazi and Jawbox. Morrison himself is a stone-R&B fan who believes the most challenging music right now is being made by producers like The Neptunes and Timbaland. (He’s also a great dancer.) He often refers to music as a “dialogue” rather than as a presentation; a conversation between the audience and the artist.
That’s why the group decided to leave its fans not with a farewell collection of original material, but rather “The People’s History of the Dismemberment Plan,” which consists of past songs remixed by other people, most of whom remain perfect strangers to the band.
“We received about 170 remixes, and they’re all spectacular, but spectacular for different reasons,” Morrison says. “We have faith in the anarchy of punk and the marketplace of ideas. I think there’s not enough anarchy of ideas, so this was a statement. I’m enormously proud of this project. It’s better than most of our albums.”
The dialogue continues that night when the band, in typical fashion, reduces the sold-out club to an ecstatic puddle of sweat. The give-and-take is palpable and the effort to be up to the task (Morrison stubbornly recites all his stage patter in halting Japanese) is rewarded by an audience who is equally up to task of pushing the band to its considerable limits.
It continues even after the music ends. The band follows the dripping crowd into the bar, where they mingle, chatting and signing autographs. Morrison, clearly enjoying himself, is surrounded by a crush of adoring fans who seem determined to keep him there as long as possible. It was obviously one of those days when he rolled a 12.
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